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Institute of Advanced Study

Transfigurings: the Wonder of Beauty Symposium

Convenors: Prof. Martyn Evans, Prof. Jane Macnaughton

Preparatory Research Discussion

The convenors will organise a preparatory meeting to be held in the IAS in March 2012 for academics and IAS fellows to meet to discuss a preliminary idea for a research application.  This meeting will draw ideas and conclusions from events that have already been held under the auspices of the theme.  This will enable more focussed discussions to take place at the Research Day.

The case for the recovery of beauty is integral to the general proposal for beauty as an IAS theme. However similar considerations apply also to the notion of wonder, and perhaps for similar reasons. The historical scholarly 'career' of wonder is perhaps a more restricted one in disciplinary terms than is that of beauty, but both have stood (and arguably continue to stand) in highly illuminating relationships with the development of science. Where beauty has consistently been seen as a confirmatory adjunct to scientific theory and insight, wonder for a time languished in the role of a counter-rational distraction from science, or a mysticist alternative to genuine curiosity.

It seems clear however that, as is the case with understanding and the appreciation of beauty, understanding and a sense of wonder need not compete for the same intellectual space and neither need dislodge the other. Like the sense of beauty, the sense of wonder extends our modes of apprehension of and response to the world around us. Both can increase our receptivity to, and our appreciation of, the rational search for explanation. Both are capable of transfiguring the world, and of transfiguring ourselves - our experience and our self-experience - as we encounter and reflect upon the world. Perhaps in so doing, both can make us more acutely alive.

This symposium will explore the parallels (and their limitations) between wonder and beauty, the phenomenology of experiencing them, how they transfigure the world, what they disclose about us and our experience, whether they point beyond the world of experience and reason, and how they support (perhaps, vitally) human flourishing.

The invited contributors will be drawn primarily from Durham scholars (representing disciplines in all three Faculties including natural sciences) who have already shown a commitment to enquiries in these or closely-related fields. The contributors will be invited to consider allocated questions within the following proposed framework; for each question twenty minutes' presentation by the invited contributor will be followed by ten minutes' discussion with a thirty-minute plenary discussion at the end of the morning and again at the end of the afternoon.